How would you respond to John Crossan's portrayal of Jesus as fundamentally nonviolent?

(SeanO) #1

John Crossan is a former monk who left his order. He has written a book about how to understand God’s violent acts in the Bible. His basic hypothesis begins by distinguishing between distributive and retributive justice.

  • distributive justice involves nonviolent resistance, empowering the powerless and loving our enemies
  • retributive justice involves killing our enemies or exacting judgment upon them

He then claims that the historical Jesus of the Gospels only supported distributive justice and that the apocalyptic vision of Jesus judging the world (such as found in Revelation) is the result of men subverting Jesus’ basic message and replacing it with their own sense of retributive justice.

How would you share truth with Crossan? How would you help someone who has read his book to distinguish between his hypothesis and what the Bible actually teaches?

My Response

While Crossan does notice an intriguing pattern of distributive and retributive justice - he undermines the Biblical narrative by ignoring the culpability of humanity. It is not the Biblical authors who wrongly attribute retributive justice to God, but rather it is people who fail to live out distributive justice and therefore undergo God’s retributive justice.

In addition, the Bible portrays sin as both vertical - something done against God - and horizontal - a violation against neighbor. We see King David say that his sin was first and foremost against God. Crossan does not seem to have a category for truly vertical sin - sin that is wrong because it violates what is sacred rather than because it violates the needs of another.

Psalms 51:4 - Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.

Crossan truly believes the Bible presents a bipolar view of God - at one moment extending mercy to the powerless and the next exacting judgment on His enemies. What I believe Crossan is missing is that justice for the oppressed and the poor entails the overthrow of the wicked. The two are inextricably linked. To overthrow the oppressor is to set free the poor - to destroy the wicked is to bring justice upon the earth. And when Jesus died on the cross He overthrew the oppressor of our souls - sin and satan - so that we could walk as free people in His Kingdom.

Gospel Coalition Article

Next, John Dominic Crossan fashions Jesus as a prophet who taught non-violent resistance to Roman imperialism. Crossan is perhaps most known in evangelical circles for his statement that after Jesus’ crucifixion, his body was probably thrown into a shallow grave and eaten by wild dogs. It’s easy for evangelicals like myself to write off Crossan from the start. But I am challenged by his knowledge of Scripture, which I dare say exceeds that of a good many evangelicals, even some evangelical pastors. Unfortunately, his knowledge is like the scribes of old, always searching the Scriptures, but never coming to the true Jesus revealed therein.

Here are three tests any portrait of Jesus must pass to be considered historically plausible (adapted from N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God , 131–133). The real Jesus must have been:

  • Comprehensible. Jesus was a first-century Jew from Galilee, and so we should expect his words and deeds to fit within this historical and geographical context. His message must have been understandable and on some level plausible to first-century Jews in order to have gained a hearing among them. This is why it’s so hard to see Jesus as a pagan myth or a Cynic philosopher; these portraits simply don’t make sense in Jesus’s Jewish context.
  • Crucifiable . Jesus must have also said and done things offensive enough to make the Jewish authorities want to kill him. If he only claimed to be a moral teacher, or if he only spoke out against Roman oppression, then it’s hard to see why Jews who shared those same aims and values would want him crucified. There must’ve been something apparently blasphemous about his words and deeds.
  • Consequential . Jesus left such an impact on the early Christians that they were willing to suffer and die for their testimony that he’d risen from the dead. A failed prophet or revolutionary might have attracted lasting admiration at best, but what could’ve happened to make devout monotheistic Jews worship this man after his death?

Quotes from Crossan’s Book

“How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian” by John Dominic Crossan



(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #2

The title of his book seems to suggest that if one really reads the Bible, their inclination would be to either leave Christianity or utterly reject the thought of ever becoming one.

(SeanO) #3

@O_wretched_man He does not appear to have any room in his own theology for God to exact justice. I don’t think he believes in God on a practical level - his perspective sounds more like that of someone devoted to humanism within the context of naturalism. As a result of that worldview, he assumes that, like himself, anyone reading about God exacting justice would be appalled by the violence of God’s justice rather than the sin against God and against their fellow humans that the Canaanites were committing at that time in history.

I can understand his logic as an unbeliever. If God were not real, then what the Israelites did could only have been motivated by greed or prejudice. But I do believe in God and I do believe in sin and the Canaanites were guilty of much evil. So while the reality of God’s judgment actually happening before the day of judgment and intersecting history can be shocking - it is not as inconceivable for a believer in a just God as it is for an unbeliever who can see no motivation but greed, ignorance or bigotry.

The foundational belief or lack of belief in a good and just God makes a massive difference in the way a person will perceive the stories of divine judgment. Unbelief inevitably leads to the conclusion that an ancient tribe was using the idea of a deity to further their own cause. Whereas belief at least allows for the possibility that the God who raises up nations and brings them down was, in this very unique and peculiar case, working through Israel - letting the nation He was using be aware of their role in the process.

(Stephen Wuest) #4

I think that Crossan shares a lot of ideas with North Americans who agreed with beliefs that were popular in the Jesus Seminar. Some of the shared beliefs in this seminar are that the historical Jesus is just a mythical creation of later Christians. And that the New Testament was not inspired by God, nor was it a historical document describing the life of Jesus.

Basically, this style of belief argues that Christianity and the New Testament are a social construct, and they try to find explanations of why people invented the text of the New Testament, centuries later than the first century.

There are a lot of valid responses to this view of the New Testament. Historical evidence places the text as finished before the end of the first century. An unbroken line of human witnesses exists, from the life of Jesus, through the apostle John writing the last books in the new Testament in the 90’s A.D.

What the supporters of the Jesus Seminar really object to, is the Jewish-Christian belief that God exists. They are atheists, in relation to the description of God that the Bible presents.

N.T. Wright, in a number of his books on Christianity and first century culture, shows how the common arguments of the Jesus Seminar just don’t make sense in the 1st century Christian and Roman cultures.

Although Crossan may still label himself a Christian, he does not accept the Scriptures as historic documents, nor does he accept the existence of God, and he denies the experience of God that generations of Christians and Jews have had. It’s useless to bring up Jesus’ about the final judgment, because he doesn’t accept the gospels as historic records of the life of a historic Jesus.

I would start from the beginning. And emphasize the shared realities of the physical universe, valid reasoning methods, and a core moral/ethical code. And I would emphasize the shared experiences of generations of Jews and Christians, that God exists.

(SeanO) #5

@Stephen_Wuest Those are helpful thoughts. I agree that N. T. Wright’s work on the reality that Christianity is not the natural byproduct of the Judaism of the first century or of paganism is extremely helpful - a bodily resurrected Messiah who broke in to the middle of history was not something anyone expected or sought for… That God would Himself be born as a carpenter’s son to live, teach and die as a man in fulfillment of the OT prophets was radical and entirely unexpected, but looking back was clearly the event to which the prophets were pointing.

(Stephen Wuest) #6

On the topic of violence, Jesus presents this life as the opportunity to make peace with God. (Accept the covenant that he offers.) But, he presents the final judgment as a time of when the mercy of God ends, and the hard justice of God begins. (Such as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.)

We see Peter, James, and John as so scared at seeing Jesus in his glorified, future form, at the transfiguration, that they do not mention the event to others before Jesus’ resurrection.

It is common for people to present being a pacifist, with being righteous. But when people impose this pacifist preference on their idea of who God should be, then they are really out of step with the picture of God that the Bible presents.

(SeanO) #7

@Stephen_Wuest God is our Heavenly Father and in traditional cultures they understood that this relationship implied obedience and discipline. A father guides their child in the way they should go and disciplines them when they go astray. But some say that our generation wants a heavenly grandfather who never rebukes or corrects and just gives them what they want when they want it. People want comfort without correction, hope without holiness, peace without the presence…

I think part of the struggle is that we assume we know what God’s judgment upon those who reject Him will look like - we take the images of God judging nations in the Old Testament by allowing them to be overrun by foreign armies, famine and plague and try to envision what the final judgment will be like… But as we cannot truly envision Heaven, so I do not think we can accurately grasp the nature of the final judgment. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but let us not assume the form of the final judgment in such a way as to go beyond what is written. We can trust God’s heart - He has been patient and gracious, making it to rain on the good and the evil, so we know His judgment will be just.